The no-show bowl. I think it’s safe to say that next week’s Outback Bowl between Penn State and Florida will draw this season’s biggest crowd to Raymond James Stadium. Penn State fans are known for traveling and Tampa isn’t far for most Florida fans to travel to say farewell to coach Urban Meyer. It’s a good matchup. But, even though I’m wearing a Penn State hat as I type this, I don’t see how the Gators and Nittany Lions are that much better of a matchup than Sunday’s game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Seahawks are very much in the hunt for the NFC West title and the Bucs still can get to the playoffs if they win this one and next week at New Orleans. This game won’t be aired on local television in the Tampa Bay market, and it’s probably going to draw about 35,000 fans. Blame it on the economy, the day after Christmas or whatever. But it seems pretty strange that every other game in the league with playoff implications sold out with ease.
Quarterback Matt Ryan has led Atlanta to the NFC's best record this season at 12-2.
Brees or Ryan? We talked about this the other day. Is Drew Breesstill the NFC South’s best quarterback or has Matt Ryan surpassed him this season? I believe it’s a real close call and I think we’ll know the verdict immediately after Monday night’s game. In other words, the winner takes all -- at least for this season.
Running on empty. The Bucs have been one of the great success stories of the league this season after going 3-13 last season. They’ve turned the corner and the future looks bright. But last week’s embarrassing home loss to Detroit tells me the Bucs might have finally hit the wall this season. Coach Raheem Morris has squeezed every drop of talent out of his young team, but a ton of injuries appear to have finally caught up to the Bucs. Only a few weeks ago, I would have said the Bucs were headed for 10 or 11 wins. Now, the eight wins they already have is looking like a pretty realistic measure. This season has been a success in many ways. But winning against the Seahawks or next week in New Orleans would be nice, because it would allow the Bucs to close the season with momentum that can be carried over to next season.
Special rivalry. I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way, and it’s really nothing more than a hunch. But I think Monday's game between New Orleans and Atlanta will come down to special teams. My reason is simple. In their previous meeting in the Superdome in September, the Falcons won largely because Garrett Hartley missed a field goal. Atlanta fans like to remind New Orleans fans of that miss. And New Orleans fans like to remind Atlanta fans that the NFC South standings and the overall playoff picture might look a lot different if the Falcons hadn’t been “lucky.’’ Lucky or good, I think a special-teams play will make the difference in this one. Maybe it’s a made or missed field goal attempt, a long return of a kickoff or punt or something else on special teams. It just seems like special teams are becoming a natural part of the NFC South’s best rivalry.
High-stakes game. This game has huge meaning for both teams. But let’s boil it down to simple terms. If the Falcons win, they are the NFC South champion and will hold the No. 1 seed in the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. If the Saints win, they still have a shot at grabbing those two things from the Falcons. New Orleans also would have to win its finale against Tampa Bay and the Falcons would have to lose their finale against Carolina. If that happens, New Orleans would claim the No. 1 seed. Oh, by the way, I haven’t been able to confirm it yet, but there are rumblings that Atlanta receiver Roddy White has invited Trent Dilfer to hang out on the Falcons’ sideline -- or maybe not. (Here's what Dilfer said about the Falcons earlier this week.)